A few days ago, someone asked a group their opinion regarding the meaning of a particular line in a hymn text. I’d not really thought much about the text (sure, I’ve sung it a few times in my life, but that’s about it), but having looked at it more carefully, I think there’s a lot for us to contemplate in it. This is an expanded version of my response to the original query.
“‘Tis Midnight, and on Olive’s Brow” is generally classified as a “communion song,” i.e., one sung before the Lord’s Supper is offered. It is a narrative hymn, much like “Ten Thousand Angels,” or even “We Saw Thee Not.” As narrative songs go, it fits into a category of hymns about the events in the garden of Gethsemane, prior to Jesus’ arrest. Probably the most well-known example of a “garden hymn” is “Night, with Ebon Pinion.”
If we were to sum up the message of this hymn in a single word, that word may well be “loneliness.” The four verses look at the loneliness of Jesus as He was praying in the garden. Loneliness is not something we normally associate with Jesus, but I think loneliness was a part of what Jesus was dealing with during this pivotal scene, particularly as it progresses.
’Tis midnight, and on Olive’s brow
the star is dimmed that lately shone;
’tis midnight, in the garden now
the suffering Savior prays alone.
The first verse describes the stark contrast between the scene here and the scene just a few days prior. When Jesus entered Jerusalem at the beginning of that week, He was met with the adoration of a crowd proclaiming the coming of their long-awaited Messiah. As the week progressed, however, the enemies of Jesus directly challenged Him; we see less of Jesus among the crowds, and more of Him among His closest followers. Now, in the garden, Jesus is accompanied directly by only three of His chosen disciples, and He is a small distance away from even them, praying to His Father.
’Tis midnight, and from all removed,
the Savior wrestles lone with fears;
e’en that disciple whom he loved
heeds not the Savior’s grief and tears.
The second verse (sometimes excluded from hymnals) focuses in on the fact that even His closest followers had begun the process of forsaking Jesus. We normally think of this happening with Jesus’ arrest and the disciples’ scattering; in a sense, though, these three were forsaking the Lord by sleeping, instead of praying themselves. Imagine the very human emotions the Son of Man went through when He returned from praying and found the three asleep. And then, when He found them the second and third times. They did not yet fully realize what the Savior was going through, or the importance of that moment.
’Tis midnight, and for others’ guilt
the Man of Sorrows weeps in blood;
yet he that has in anguish knelt
is not forsaken by his God.
The third and fourth verses mirror and contrast with the first two. At the midpoint of the hymn, Jesus has been stripped of all earthly companions, and all earthly comforters who might have stood by His side during this scene. The depth of Jesus’ emotional distress at this point is realized by mentioning the sweat as drops of blood (Luke 22.44, figuratively referred to as weeping in blood) and the anguish with which He prays. In spite of the physical appearance of this scene, however, we are drawn to the heavenly picture, that His God—His Father—did not forsake Him in this hour of distress.
’Tis midnight, and from heavenly plains
is borne the song that angels know;
unheard by mortals are the strains
that sweetly soothe the Savior’s woe.
How is it that we know the Father did not forsake the Son in this hour? It was not by removing the cup which He had to drink. Rather, it was by sending an angel to comfort Jesus and strengthen Him (Luke 22.43). This is illustrated in this fourth verse by describing a song of angels soothing the Savior’s woe.
In most narrative hymns (that don’t deal with the life of Jesus), it is common to include a didactic verse—one which takes the narrative and applies it to us. This is generally not needed for narrative hymns about the life of Jesus, since the subject matter is considered worthy of singing on its own, but we ought to consider, what is the application? What do we draw out of this hymn and this narrative account beside it being about Jesus?
We each go through periods of deep distress. Certainly not on the level of what Jesus was encountering, but perhaps overwhelming, nonetheless. There are times when it seems that not even our closest friends are able to offer balm for our woe. When we find ourselves in that position, we must remember that our God will not forsake us. When we go to Him in our deepest anguish with our troubles, He will provide comfort. It may not be anything obvious or expected. There may be something we have to do to access that comfort. But nonetheless, He will comfort us, just as He comforted Jesus in that hour.